More than simply human guests were welcomed at the Dx3 conference this year.
Among the non-human participants was Pepper – an emotional robot developed by the Japanese company SoftBank Mobile. Pepper is a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank in collaboration with its Paris-based subsidiary Aldebaran.
According to Steve Carlin, the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for the Aldebaran-SoftBank Group, Pepper is currently equipped with the ability to sense human emotions and respond to them appropriately.
“It takes those emotional cues and clues and reacts and responds accordingly. So if it thinks you’re sad it might try to cheer you up. If it thinks you’re happy it might try to make you happy,” said Carlin.
One thousand units of Pepper’s consumer model, sold out in a minute after going on sale in June of 2015. The basic price of the robot is 198 000 yen, or $2,323 Canadian with the option of pursuing a 36-month payment plan and an insurance plan, according to a press release issued by SoftBank in 2015.
Carlin goes on to describe Pepper’s many workplace functions, including those in what he says is their main reason for attending Dx3; retail settings. In its current model, he explained, Pepper is ideal for completing repetitive tasks, therefore maximizing workplace efficiency.
“What’s great about that and the reason why we’re at Dx3 is because one of the great uses is in a retail setting – as a way to proactively engage shoppers as they’re working their way through a store. It has a lot of potential uses to create a better environment and a better experience for the shopper through the context of stores.”
Despite the excitement surrounding developments in robotics such as Pepper, a fear that robots will prove to be better workers than human beings still exists. Carlin, however, quickly puts those fears to bed.
“I definitely think the train has left the station on robotics. You’re seeing more and more things around utilizing robots, machines, algorithms, computers in day to day business tasks, and I think that’s the key. What Pepper’s going to be doing is working on repetitive tasks. That’s very different than jobs.”
Pepper runs on a platform called NAOqi OS, which, functionally, can be compared to well-known programs like Android and iOS. With a tablet on Pepper’s chest, it’s clear that NAOqi is already running a few apps designed in-house, some which control the movements and reactions of the robot.
“What’s gonna be really exciting about pepper as a platform is that developers need to come onto the platform and create. We want developers to come on and say “I’ve got an interesting use case let me develop an app for it,”’ said Carlin.
What’s most interesting about Pepper however isn’t the robot’s price, specs, or even its potential to influence the presence of robotics in our everyday lives – it’s those eyes. When Pepper sees you, it immediately tries to register you, during which time its eyes light up and flicker. The robot is constantly trying to orient itself to its subject, because that’s what it’s designed to do. It’s quite endearing really.
Now, I’m going to admit that multiple times while writing this I’ve caught myself using gendering nouns like ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking about what, for all intents and purposes should be an inanimate object that vaguely resembles a human.
This brings us to the Uncanny Valley, a concept developed by a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Masahiro Mori, in 1970. The uncanny valley refers to the discomfort felt by humans when a humanoid bears too close a resemblance to them.
Carlin states that Pepper is designed with this in mind – so as not to intimidate or frighten. Though it’s a humanoid – its arms, legs and face all appear to be in the right place – it’s not human. Carlin discussed this briefly, stating that even children would feel welcomed rather than put off by Pepper’s presence.
“We very specifically designed our robot the way we did so as not to approach that uncanny valley.”
The advent of robots like Pepper present some ambiguity in the world of robotics. Though the humanoid robot is able to answer many questions it’s presented with, it may one day have the potential to do more.
Carlin claims that though this concern isn’t a futile one, the brain is a much more complex machine and is not easily manipulated.
“Let’s not give it too much credit, robotics is tough. It’s really hard to do what we’re doing right now, as a robot. You had to get here, you had to interact with [my colleague], and you had to interact with me. That’s all really difficult to do from a computer’s standpoint.”
Though it seems more like science-fiction now, I posed the question to Carlin wondering whether developers would eventually deliberately curb advances that would pose a threat to human superiority. We can’t disregard a future where we may be struggling to define both the concept of humanness and the value of meaningful work.
The question still remains, will we eventually redesign ourselves?